A Tale of Riches to Rags

Satellite map of Nauru

For a couple of months towards the end of 1979 I was priviledged to visit a number of islands in the South Pacific. They were not tourist or luxury liner visits. Most of the time I stayed with locals. My work was representing the ship MV Logos and making advance preparations for the vessel to visit these far flung outposts of our world. If interested I describe the type of work I was engaged in in my posts City of Many Faces or I see men like trees walking! Here I am recalling a visit to a tiny island nation in the vast Pacific.

Location of the Repunlic of Nauru

Visiting Nauru was unintentional. Myself and a colleague were flying from Fiji to Honiara, Solomon Islands on Nauru’s national airline, Air Nauru. We had been encouraged by the cheap tickets on offer. However didn’t realise it would be expensive for us time-wise. Nauru was meant to be just a stopover but the airline had no plane available for our ongoing flight. It didn’t appear any other airline went there. They willingly put us up for 2 days in the island’s only hotel. We discovered most people in the hotel were also stranded for similar reasons as ourselves. Being put up by the airline was apparently a regular occurrence. Hard to imagine such happening with today’s airlines. Perversely I wondered if cheap air tickets and flight cancellations were a way of getting visitors to this remote place not on a normal tourist route. For a small place it boasts quite a few interesting and rather sad facts**.

The airline it seems could afford such generosity. The reason was Nauru was full of the world’s purest quality rock phosphate, used in fertilisers. The population had became very wealthy selling mining rights to big companies. At one time Nauru citizens were the richest per capita in the world. My visit was during the boom times. There were no taxes and the government gave everybody a stipend. The population then was 4,000 (now nearly 11,000). It is the world’s smallest independent island nation. Air Nauru then had 4 Boeing aircraft in its fleet. One aircraft per thousand inhabitants! Even the milk was flown in. Sounds idyllic? Not really as there was no incentive to get jobs, start businesses or diversify its economy. 

Roughly oval shaped and about 6 km long and 4km wide Nauru has a main road round it’s perimeter. My recollection was of local teens racing round and round this looped road in expensive motorbikes. The interior of the island was where the mining occurred. I remember the bioluminescence of the waves at night, their sparkling a wonder to behold. Seeing the coral reef that surrounded the entire island was a constant reminder that a great and deep ocean was just out there. The moonlike standing limestone structures gave a kind of haunting beauty. Standing on a small, fairly flat island in the vast Pacific I felt vulnerable and exposed. It’s nearest neighbour is Banabi island 300km to the east. Yes Nauru had a beauty to it and I could understand why it was once called Pleasant island.

The tragedy of Nauru is that strip mining scarred 80% of the country’s entire surface leaving it a wasteland and the people clinging to the remaining habitable areas on the coast. Added to that was the phosphate runoff poisoning the ground waters with cadmium. When there was no more phosphate left to mine this single source of wealth disappeared. The people subsequently have become poor. Riches to rags. The government did win reparations from Australia for the environmental degradation it suffered. In a controversial development in recent years they have been getting income from Australia by serving as a detention centre for asylum seekers. A recent proposed project, currently of unknown impact on the environment, is deep sea mining of seabed metal nodules. There are also a number of dubious money making schemes.

“I wish we’d never discovered that phosphate…When I was a boy, it was so beautiful… Now I see what has happened here, and I want to cry.”

Rev Aingimea, Nauru Congregational Church, speaking to New York Times 10 Mar 1995.

We eventually did get on our onward flight to Honiara in the Solomon Islands. Accommodation there was very different! We stayed in the convent of an Anglican women’s order. My colleague Jean as a woman had no problem in living in the community. For me the solution was the nuns putting me in an outhouse on a hill. However I could eat at mealtimes with the community. Breakfasts were silent which was fine. Meals when you could talk were often mundane. At other times discussing what the call of God might mean. I was impressed by the energy of the leading sister. The peace of the night would be punctuated by the sound of her battering away on a manual typewriter. 

In a few weeks time the world’s attention will turn to my home city of Glasgow. It is about to host the UN COP26 conference on climate change and the environment. Matters of global concern will be discussed with many voices and opinions. Nauru is literally a drop in the ocean of both the world’s population and land area. Insignificant as it might seem it’s tragic story represents the story of many communities and nations today. Places that suffer from a toxic mixture of greed, environmental degradation and humanity’s ongoing hunger for resources.

** See, for example, “11 amazing facts about Nauru…

East or West?

A few of Stockholm’s 30,000 islands!

My wife is Swedish and for almost 40 years I have been travelling to and from Sweden. Sometimes several times a year and occasionally a year or two with no visits. Short period stays for a few weeks up to one period where we lived and worked in the country for 2 years. It has been a privilege to get snapshots of the changes and trends in a country and culture over a generation. All aided by in-laws and Swedish friends as expert guides. Despite seeing a lot of the country I really have still only seen a small part. Much of the time the places visited have been in the main populated areas in the south of the country. Between the 2 biggest cities and south of that to the coast. Sweden is a big country with relatively few people. As an example the UK has 11 times more people per sq km. than Sweden. It is all relative and the north of the country is far more sparsely populated than the south where most live.

Gothenburg on the west coast and the capital Stockholm on the east. In many ways different but with some geographical similarities. One such is that each city has an archipelago. A string of islands off their respective coasts. Gothenburg’s look like they have exploded out along the coast whereas Stockholm’s seem more swirling in and attached to the city itself. Quite a few who live on these islands work in the cities and commute into their respective metropoli by ferry. A refreshing way to start and finish the work day. The lifestyle reminds me of when I lived in Sydney. There I stayed in the northern suburbs of Manly but went to work in the city by ferry. Salt spray and fresh winds do wonders for the frazzled office worker. 

To me one remarkable thing about Sweden is the eye watering taxes people are prepared to pay. That might sound like a negative but there are advantages to living in what is a very egalitarian society. One of them is that many of these islands have free car and passenger ferries for both locals and visitors. Ran by the state you can enjoy free island hopping by bike, car or on foot. No skimping on the service from early morning to late at night. Some services run every 10 mins during the day.

This generous government policy also keeps the islands populated and accessible. If you have a second home on an island you can regularly visit. Also many go for day trips or weekends so local tourism and businesses thrive. In addition a number of close knit islands have bridges joining them. Further enhancing the convenience of moving around the islands. The islands of Gothenburg’s southern archipelago are car free and there are some passenger only ferries where you do pay. Not sure what the rules are for paying and non-paying ferries.

Lilla Varholmen to Hönö Island ferries

I have only visited Gothenburg’s northern archipelago and most seem to be mainly rocky with not a lot of trees. Not unlike Scotland’s west coast in parts. The few of Stockholm’s inner islands I have seen have more abundant tree life. Although ferry travel is made easy, living on these islands is not cheap. Houses are expensive. Sweden manages to combine a benevolent and generous form of socialism with competitive markets and a very entrepreneurial society. 

Stockholm, sometimes called the Venice of the north, is itself a collection of islands. It has more of everything compared to it’s smaller sibling Göteborg in the west. Thousands of islands in its archipelago (though not all populated), more wealth and more people.

The islands on both coasts often have picturesque harbours and an abundance of pleasure craft. All giving an air of relaxed and lazy living. As a mere observer with no real insider knowledge Stockholm’s islands seem to have more of a cosmopolitan air, perhaps inevitable given it is the capital. Gothenburg’s seem to have more of a local feel and its houses (I imagine) having more vibrant colours. 

The islands, whether on east or west, have a rich and interesting history. One example is Rörö, the northernmost island of Göteborg’s archipelago. Now it is a beautiful nature reserve with lovely walks. In days gone by locals got an income from luring ships with bonfires onto it’s rocks. They would then kill any surviving crew and plunder the cargo. The graves of an English crew are said to be buried along the island’s rocky western shore. In Rörö’s harbour today a lifeboat station has pride of place. Saving lives instead of plundering and killing. Times have changed. 

The islands on both east and west coasts have been strategic to the defence of Sweden through the centuries. Vaxholm is an island cluster on the way in from the Baltic Sea to Stockholm. It has been strategic to the defense of Stockholm from enemies to the east for centuries. A lot of the substantial buildings are of a defensive nature, such as military barracks or castles. The defence of the capital is still a concern today as every so often a foreign submarine appears in its waters. Vaxholm castle even has a mines museum in its courtyard. The Oxdjupet strait was a strategic waterway on the main passage into Stockholm. Guarded on the west side of the strait by Oskar-Fredriksborg castle and Fredriksborg fortress to the east. For 300 years locals worked on filling in this strait (yes 300 years!) as a means of preventing ships entering Stockholm. Times have also changed here and now this waterway accommodates large liners and ferries on their way into and out of Stockholm.

During the Cold War many underground bunkers were installed on both east and west coast as well as on the mainland. Their locations were hard to detect buried under rock and designed to survive nuclear attack. Some years ago I visited one of these in Gothenburg’s archipelago. Located on an uninhabited rocky outcrop it was well hidden from the pleasure boats that passed by. Along with hundreds of others it was destined to be demolished. 

I will not be drawn on whether east is better than west. Suffice to say I come from the port city of Glasgow in the west of Scotland. To the east we also have a capital city, Edinburgh. 

One thing I can say is that on a summer’s day seaside ice cream tastes just as good whether looking over the Baltic or the Kattegat. In fact good ice cream tastes the same wherever you are. 

Gumption in the Forest?

A new day

Whilst in Sweden visiting family my wife planned to visit a relative in another town, Ulricehamn. It is situated at the north end of Åsunden lake, about 100km east of Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city. The idea popped into my head that rather than jump in the car what about running there instead and then get a lift back. 

Up to the day before my plan had been to follow part of Sjuhäradsrundan, the cycle route along the disused railway. However it would mainly be covered in tarmac. I didn’t like what would effectively be a road run. A last minute suggestion persuaded me to instead join part of Sjuhäradsleden, a long-distance forest trail. It would make it easier on my feet but not for navigation. I have got lost in the forests of Sweden several times before. It was difficult to ascertain the distance on this new route but it looked like marathon distance which turned out to be right. 

So last Monday at 0630 I set off from where we were staying in the forest. Initially on a gravel road to Gånghester, a village on outskirts of Borås town. Plan was to join the former railway track there and then link in with the forestry trail from Dalsjöfors.

A short way into run I passed a place where several years ago I bumped into 2 elks whilst rounding the corner. All 3 of us were equally surprised. Despite them being strongly associated with Sweden they are elusive creatures and I have only seen a few times. On that occasion I carefully backed away. They are big and not to be messed with. Had I been running a few weeks later in October the elk hunting season begins. Then it wouldn’t be elks but people to watch out for. It is not advisable to enter deep forest when groups of hunters are out and about.

On this occasion I was thinking not so much of elks but more of elk fleas (‘älgloppa’). They are hard to get rid off once on your skin but thankfully don’t bite. Same can’t be said about the ticks. Nasty, infectious bites with even nastier potential disease. Plenty of them especially in long grass. In this there was some similarity to Scotland! 

Known to me as elk corner.

On the former rail track from Gånghester to Dalsjöfors I met a few early morning cyclists on their way to work. Also a guy running much faster than I at about 10 km/hour pace pushing a child’s buggy. I was not going to be tempted to keep up and kept to my modest 8km/hr as he moved ahead.

Runner and buggy receding into distance.

Arriving Dalsjöfors instructions from family were ‘turn right and join the forest trail when you see Toarps State church up on hill to the left‘. I couldn’t see church for trees but thankfully saw the sign. Interesting that all over rural Europe directions to finding your way are often given in relation to the church of a village or town. Maybe a message there. Eventually after gaining some height I did see the church.

Toarps church peeking through the trees

The route I was now on was Sjuhäradsleden which I would follow all the way to Ulricehamn. Where I joined it was well marked and was so for most of journey. An orange diamond or painted line seen clearly on trees, poles etc. The only gripe I have with Swedish orientation signs are that there are often markings 50m or so after a fork in the trail, rarely at the fork itself. For me, it can mean carefully checking some way up each arm of the fork. However I think Swedes know what they are doing as orienteering is very popular with all ages in Sweden. They are very good at it. On second thoughts maybe looking some distance ahead rather than focussing close at hand gives better awareness of where you are. There might be a life lesson there. You the reader can decide.

Spot the sign!

Terrain was frequently changing from gravelled roads to thick forest. The latter required concentration and awareness of where I was. Also the occasional meadow but the overall sense was of trees everywhere. At more open farm steadings the route would often deviate from the farm road to make a detour into a field. I guess the farmer wanted privacy. That said one landowner told me enthusiastically that I go through her house front gate as that was the route.

Field detour

A few times the trail was ‘booby trapped’ with electric fences requiring an inelegant sliding along the ground. I guess the safety of grazing animals takes priority over the ease with which two legged travellers can pass through.

Over, in-between or under?

Mostly it was quiet and at times even felt lonely. For about 25km think I only met one person and quite a number of contented horses and sheep.

The final 10km or so of the route felt hard. Few pictures of this last section, too pre-occupied. I was getting weary and adopting a run-walk strategy. The forest terrain was more difficult to traverse, the trail underfoot becoming fainter and mixing with other tracks. However what made it most difficult was that suddenly the trail stopped being marked. No more welcome orange diamonds or lines giving reassurance of progress. I now had to follow the map downloaded the night before and which I had not studied. Ended up getting lost.

This is what lost looks like!

When lost on a trail my usual experience is of mild panic and a sense of wasted time and energy. I blindly strike out in whatever direction seems best. This time I decided to be calm, go slowly and patiently retrace my steps back to where I last knew where I was. No second guessing my location and trying to make up time with ‘shortcuts’. 

My strategy paid off and gradually I was ‘free’ of the last forested area. I now had the wider perspective of lush fields. A few more km of this and I was on a cycle path leading to Ulricehamn’s town centre and my destination.  

Cycle track into Ulricehamn.

42.3km, 640m climb, 693m descent. 6hrs 2mins.

To Be or Not To Be

Pastoral scene

The other day I sat outside for a couple of hours and just enjoyed being. The late summer sunshine was warming but not so much that it became uncomfortable. There was a freshness to the little wind that there was which gently made it’s presence known in the rustling of the trees. There was no electronic gadgets or books to hand that could distract. All very pleasant yet tinged with some disquiet. A voice in my head said I was doing nothing. 

I was in the countryside and my only companions apart from my thoughts were the sheep in the adjacent field. They were busy. Sheep seem to want to frenetically eat every bit of grass as if it were their last. 

Especially interesting to sheep is the grass on the other side of the fence. In fact 2 years ago when staying in the same place one job was watching out for one sheep who would regularly jump over the fence. Short-term she might enjoy it but after a while would start to feel lonely and desperately try to get back over or through the fence. Outside the fence there was also the danger of getting lost or becoming prey. 

Plums tastier than grass

Sheep also know when to sit down, relax and chew the cud. They have a good work/ life balance. 

Chewing the cud

The drive to keep busy is not healthy. Being at peace and content with myself is far more challenging. One of the most precious yet elusive things in life is to savour the present. Each day I am challenged to live in the here and now. It seems to me contentment lies in the present moment, whether it is busy or not. It is a life’s work but the tools are always there. The way I regard my memories (good or bad) and think of my future directly influences how I view the present.

My culture gives value to being busy. To admit to others I am not doing much implies some kind of failure. Also when told someone is busy implies he/she is unavailable. It also conveys that whatever they are doing is more important than giving me the time of day. Their time is more valuable than mine. A world filled with busy people is a lonely one. 

Writing this I am conscious of those whose days are filled providing food, clothing and shelter for themselves and their families. For many it looks like being busy is not a distraction but a necessity. However being busy ‘for busyness’ sake’ is not something I ought to strive for. I’m told that boredom is a sign of questioning the meaning of doing certain things. It is not having nothing to do. I can be very busy but also bored because I question the value of what I am doing. 

There is a healthy ‘busyness’ that comes from  being engaged in something absorbing. It probably involves interacting with people, nature or things in a creative way. Such times are a blessing. Instead of a tiring activity I am refreshed and experience a sense of fulfilment.

Someone has been busy
Picking mushrooms

Like sheep I am tempted by what I think is greener grass. Not content I wish to move outside of the fence and away from the fold. 

“Come to me, all you who are weary and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”

Matthew 11 verse 28.